Family Dinners Don’t Have To Be So Stressful

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Lately, there has been some pushback on the idea of the home-cooked meal as a way to address the nation’s obesity problem.  It seems to have started with a recent study by three North Carolina State University sociologists entitled “The Joy of Cooking.”  Their argument is that the vision of a parent regularly cooking food for a sit-down family meal is burdensome and elitist.  It’s burdensome in that it creates expectations that don’t match the reality of many parents’ lives.  It’s elitist in that these expectations are especially unattainable by families with significant financial insecurity.

According to the authors, the “foodie-intellectuals” responsible for this vision simply don’t understand the daily challenges many parents face.  Instead of urging families to cook at home, the authors want to find “more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families.”

Unfortunately, the solutions they propose range from the merely unrealistic – monthly town suppers and healthy food trucks — to the truly bizarre – schools offering “to-go meals” that can be taken home and heated up at night.  Schools are already struggling to provide their students with healthy lunches.   Why in the world would we want to burden them with the new responsibility of providing entire families with healthy dinners?

Needless to say, this article has generated a great deal of debate.  I won’t go into the particulars of that debate here.  (You can find commentary on the study by Googling “family dinner” + “the joy of cooking” and limiting your search results to the last few months).

Instead, let me add my own observations:  Aren’t convenience and fast foods an example of the outsourcing approach that the authors of the study are proposing?  And aren’t the calls for a return to home cooking a direct result of the chronic diseases – obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, for example – that are increasingly being linked with convenience and fast foods?  Simply put, outsourcing the task of cooking has proven to be harmful to our health.

The authors’ agenda seems mainly about criticizing the idea of home cooking, but they fail to offer any real alternative for addressing our nation’s food-related health problems.  Yes, for many families the weeknight meal can be a pressure-filled, chaotic, and unsatisfying experience.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  With a little reimagining of our expectations, the family dinner can truly be about nourishing mind and body through a shared meal of simple but healthy food without the stress experienced by many of the participants in the authors’ study.

The solution to the challenges described in the article is not to abandon the idea of home cooking but to find ways to make it easier.  A good place to start is the myth that every part of a weeknight dinner has to be made from scratch using only fresh, expensive ingredients immediately before it is eaten.  That’s complete bunk.  As many commentators have suggested, dinner can be a jar of pasta sauce (preferably without added sugar, if you can find it) and some spaghetti.  What kid wouldn’t like that?

Here’s another example of a quick weeknight meal item that everyone can love.  About a month ago I noticed a nearby grocery store selling packages of uncooked bone-in chicken thighs with a chile rub already applied.  What a terrific idea, I thought!  I took them home and, a few nights later, popped them into a 375° preheated oven for 45 minutes.  Combined with a couple of easy-to-make sides, dinner was quick and delicious with less than 20 minutes of hands-on prep time.  Best of all, my kids asked for the same dinner the following night.

The real beauty of this idea, however, is its adaptability to each family’s tastes and preferences.  Rather than buying the thighs with the rub applied in the store, you can easily replicate the same thing at home using ingredients available to you.

Start with a good recipe for a rub (here’s one I developed).  Mix up a batch when you have the time and save it in a glass jar.  (Most recipes produce enough for multiple meals, but if yours doesn’t, then double, triple, or even quadruple it so you’ll always have some on hand.)  Then, a few nights later while the oven is preheating, mix a couple of tablespoons of the rub with an equal amount of neutral vegetable oil and apply the mixture to some chicken thighs you’ve had in your fridge waiting for just this moment.  Voila!  In only about 10 minutes of active prep time, you have an inexpensive and tasty start to a home-cooked family dinner.

In a recent op-ed responding to the Joy of Cooking article, Mark Bittman wrote that its “authors are not anti-cooking but anti-poverty.”  I agree with that observation.  Unfortunately, in their rush to scapegoat the home-cooked meal, the authors fail to understand that home cooking can be an effective tool in the battle against a major symptom of poverty, food-related chronic diseases.  I think a better use of the creativity called for by the authors would be to figure out ways to help busy families navigate between the competing extremes of “all food made from scratch all of the time” and “home-cooking is oppressive, so let’s never do it” they so roundly criticize in their study.

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